A Rumor of War (1980)




Director:     Richard T. Heffron.

Starring:     Brad Davis  (Lt. Philip 'Phil' Caputo),  Keith Carradine (Lt. Murph McCoy),  Michael O'Keefe  (Lt. Walter Cohen),  Richard Bradford (Gen. Merle Rupert),  Brian Dennehy  (Sgt. Ned Coleman),  John Friedrich  (Cpl. Pascarella),  Perry Lang  (Woodward),  Christopher Mitchum  (Capt. Peterson),  Dan Shor  (Manhole),  Lane Smith (Sgt. Willliam Holgren),  Nicholas Woodeson (Cpl. Kazmarak),  Gail Youngs (Carol),  Steve Forrest (Col. Atherton),  Stacy Keach (Maj. Ball),  Phillip R. Allen (Col. Perry).

TV miniseries about US Marine in the early years of American involvement in the Vietnam War


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Danang, June 13, 1966.  Lt. Phil Caputo is accused of murdering with premeditation two citizens of the Republic of Vietnam. 

Flashback.  Chicago three years ago.  22 year old Phil Caputo is a young fellow with a girlfriend and still living at home.  His girl drives him over to his place and Phil tells her he will be back in five minutes.  They are having a little cook-out at his place and his family wants him to stay.  He keeps telling people that he is late and has to go, but they keep trying to talk to him.  His father is angry with him for trying to leave.  By the time Phil gets back to the car, his girlfriend has already driven away.     

Phil goes down to the local bar.  The bar tender is a war veteran and he keeps refusing to tell Phil what war is like.  He tells Phil just to be grateful that there's no war that they can send him to. 

Phil goes home to talk to his father.  He tells him that his girlfriend is named Carol.  Dad says that this Carol is too different from them.  Phil responds that he thinks he is going to marry this girl. 

On the television is the funeral of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Phil lays there with Carol watching the television, when he drops a bomb on her.  He has joined the marines.  He tells her:  "It's about time I put myself out there for something I believe in." 

Phil asks himself what is he trying to prove?  His manhood?  His courage?  In church he pledges that he will strive to do good. 

Officer Training, U.S. Marine Corps.  Caputo fights with Cohen to win a bayonet challenge.  He knocks Cohen down and then quickly helps Cohen get back up.  This angers the drill instructor who says that you don't help the enemy get up after you've just knocked him down.  You finish him off by killing him with the bayonet.  The operative word here is "kill" and the drill sergeant keeps trying to hammer that idea into Caputo's head.  He makes Cohen and Caputo go through the exercise again, but this time Phil gets knocked down. 

Phil writes a letter to Carol talking about Walter Chamberlain Cohen.  He says that Cohen always seems to do the right thing. 

Carol comes to visit Phil in Virginia.  They get a room in a hotel.  Phil tells her that he wants to marry her, but she says his family will never permit it.  They don't like her.  So she will never marry Phil.  Phil is disappointed and asks Carol whey did she even come out to see him then?  He gets dressed and leaves the room. 

Phil is in a C-130 heading south to Danang.  He says that they were the first major force to land in Vietnam and they were ready for anything. 

The unit moves down the road keeping their intervals between marines.  Captain Paterson tells Phil that if the Viet Cong come, they are coming right down Phil's throat, so he better have his men improve these bunkers.  Later Phil gets balled out for having so many men around relaxing and laughing.  So Phil now yells at his veteran sergeant Ned Coleman. 

At night Phil goes out to check the perimeter.  He gets stopped by Cpl. Pascarella who keeps asking him questions like whose the president of the United States?  Phil tells the corporal to chill out. 

There are several incidents, but nothing really big happens.  But now they go out and have to plant down some wire.    As they move around, radioman Ramirez steps on a mine.  Ramirez has to have his left foot amputated.  He is the unit's first casualty.  Tomorrow they are going on the offensive.  Phil is excited about getting contact with a Viet Cong battalion.  The sergeants are not enthused.  Coleman writes a letter to his wife and three children. 

D company will take up a blocking position.  Phil and his men of C company land between hills 107 and 1098.  They are to proceed along the river and meet D company and the enemy's 807th battalion in a classic hammer and anvil movement.  The helicopters land on the LZ (landing zone) and let the troops out.  Phil drops a green smoke grenade indicating that the landing zone is not under fire.  The men just keep on walking through the jungle.  Phil senses something evil and alive in the jungle, but he keeps going.  They come to a clearing.  They slowly move out onto the plain and come under enemy fire.

The troops move into a village.  Phil and a guy named Sullivan check out one of the huts, but find nothing. 

The men are disappointed.  There is no VC battalion and no D company.  A South Vietnamese soldier is slapping a VC suspect around.  The Americans stop this and the South Vietnamese soldier says that they will learn with time why he is treating his suspect so harshly.  He says the VC make deadly booby traps that kill soldiers. 

One of the young soldiers collapses from the heat.  They get him over to a field hospital.  The doctor says he doesn't know why the man is still alive.  He has a temperature of 109 degrees.  His brain is boiling and he probably has brain damage.  He will have to be evacuated to the United States. 

Danang in 1965 teemed with  refugees, soldiers, black marketers, pimps and whores.  Lt. Murph McCoy takes Cohen and Phil up to Simone's nightclub.  Cohen and Phil both get their own women.  Phil talks about this place killing his men.  Woodward died of the sun boiling his brain.  Ramirez lost his foot.  And all they do is walk and walk and walk.  The woman with him doesn't know what he's talking about. 

When Phil returns to his unit, everybody is just sitting around relaxing.  He goes up to Coleman and asks why is everybody not saying anything?  Coleman tells him that Sullivan is dead.  A Viet Cong fellow who could really shoot got Sullivan.  Phil says he should have been here, but Coleman says there was nothing he could have done to save Sullivan.  Someone had to be first, but Coleman just wishes it didn't have to be Sullivan. 

The officers clean their weapons in preparation for going back out into the jungle.  They come to another clearing.  Half the group goes across.  The way is clear for the second group to come across, but the second group is hit with a lot of artillery.  Coleman is hit badly.  He tells Phil to forget about him, he's a goner.  Coleman screams in pain.  They call for a medi-vac, but none are coming.  Phil holds Coleman as he rants on and on.  He screams out:  "Why?  Why?"  and dies. 

Fall, 1965, and Phil says they were on a commuter war.  It was get in and get out, get in and get out.  Their mission was to survive each daily mission. 

Phil is getting really frustrated with the war.  They take ground and they give up ground, they lose a man here, they lose a man there.  It all seems so meaningless to him.  Murph gets dressed in a peasant outfit and leaves.  Phil asks him where he's going, but Murph won't say.  He rides a bicycle over to see a Vietnamese woman.  She is very afraid that Murph is going to be killed, but Murph assures her it will not happen to him.  They kiss.  It is apparent that someone is watching them. 

The helicopters take the men out again. 

Regimental Headquarters, December, 1965.  Operation Polk, three companies strong, is on its way.  One of the men flips out and starts screaming that he ain't going.  The sergeant, William Holgren, has a hell of a time with the fellow.  The sergeant forces the man onto the helicopter.  The LZ is hot and the men are under fire even before they get down onto the ground. 

Possible contact 100 yards ahead.  Charlie is now 75 yards away.  A machine gun opens up on the men and they have to dive for cover.  They are pinned down and call for artillery fire.  One young man shimmies along a dead tree to get a better view of the machine gun emplacement.  He calls down the artillery on the machine gun position, but pays for it with his life. 

Phil's unit starts disintegrating into a rampaging mob.  The men start blowing up and burning down the whole village.  "We relieved our own pain and fear by inflicting it on others." 

Phil gets transferred to the third marines, ninth expeditionary brigade, regimental headquarters, a staff appointment.   He learns that he won't have clerical work for more than three hours a day.  The general comes and gets Phil.  His real job will keep up-to-date the casualties, body counts, kill ratios.  He wants to be able to look at the board and know how his men are doing.  Phil takes calls in from the field considering causalities and body counts.

Major Ball comes in and asks Phil who is he?  He wants Phil to get all the recently killed enemy and place them in front of a tent so Gen. Rupert can see them.  The muddy bodies are laid out for the general to see.  The general comes along and tells Phil to get those bodies out of here.  He says:  let's not be ghoulish.    Now Major Ball comes and says to line the bodies back up.  Phil talks back to the major.  The general comes out again, the major says he has four dead Viet Cong for his viewing and the general says that's good and keeps on walking. 

Phil just hates his job dealing with the dead.  A reverend tries to talk to him about it, but Phil just keeps telling him that he doesn't want to talk about the subject.  He finally gets fed up and leaves.  He goes over and hears the report that Major Ball has been killed and is suggested to receive a silver star for gallantry. 

The unit comes under heavy fire from the Viet Cong.  Caputo is given command of one sector to defend the line.  He fights through the night and in the morning has to take the body counts.  Phil gets the news that Walter Cohen has been killed in action.  He is stunned and drops the phone. 

Phil is sent out on a combat mission to find, fix and destroy.  He's back with his old unit.  They are hit by the firing off of a mine and Phil has seven men wounded.  A wire leads back down to "our favorite village".  They go over to the village and interrogate a fellow who keeps saying:  "No, no VC."  Phil  is getting himself all worked up.  Sgt. Holgren has to intervene twice to keep Phil from hurting a villager.  Sgt. Holgren thinks that Phil is losing it.  Phil stands up and dares the Viet Cong to shoot him. 

Phil has a nightmare about watching his killed soldiers march past him. 

In the morning, two soldiers report to Phil that they got this guy Lei Dong.  So the three men go out on a "snatch" patrol even though they are not allowed in the village.  Phil gives the okay to kill villagers if necessary.  The two marines get in position and then burst into a hut.  They kill one person and grab Lei Dong.   They then kill Lei Dong.  They bring his body over to Phil, but Phil thinks they killed the wrong man.  They shot the kid, not Lei Dong.  Now Phil starts the cover-up of the crime.  He gets both men to agree not to say they were anywhere near the village.

But Phil is now brought in and questioned.  The Colonel asks Phil if he killed or had killed the two people in the village?  Phil denies everything.  Later he changes his mind and says he did tell the men to stick to their story.

Back to the present.  Phil says they didn't murder the two people.  He says that this is Vietnam where they can't tell who is enemy and who is friend.  But that's not going to get Phil off from the charges.  The Colonel asks him again if he did or did not order the assassination of the two citizens of Vietnam?  As long as Phil keeps denying what really happened, the Colonel says they will find Phil innocent of the charges.  Sgt, Holgren tells Phil that he should never have let happened what happened out there in the field.   

Lt. Murph comes to see Phil.  He asks him what happened and Phil says that night he just snapped.  He broke. 

Mackay is found not guilty on all counts.  And now the general just wants to get rid of the case.  If Phil will plead guilty to lying to the court, then the whole court martial can be dropped.  So Phil says he will cop to the plea.

Phil is going home.  He says:  "For me the war was over. . . I had survived, but that was my only victory." 


Good, straight forward film about the problems of the first substantial force of Americans to be thrown into combat in Vietnam.  Back then the war was not a big controversy.  Nevertheless, there are complaints heard that later became very common complaints of the troops in Vietnam.  It was difficult to tell enemy from friend.  And they would have to take ground that they will have to come back to and capture again.  With the helicopters the men felt that the war was a commuter war.  They go out and fight and then are flown back to peace and quiet and this process is repeated again and again.  Brad Davis did a terrific job playing the main role of Lt. Phil Caputo. Brian Dennehy was good as Sgt. Ned Coleman.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Da Nang is a major port city in the South Central Coast of Vietnam, on the coast of the South China Sea at the mouth of the Han River. It is the commercial and educational center of Central Vietnam and has a well-sheltered, easily accessible port.  It is also a major point on the North-South railway. 


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